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Why Canada Needs Drones

National Post - February 28, 2012

By Colin Kenny

A front-page article in the National Post last week reported that the Canadian government is considering purchasing some drones – perhaps half a dozen – as it begins to publicly perspire over its commitment to purchase sixty-five F-35 fighter jets.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are aerial robots used for surveillance or attack. Canadian troops used them for surveillance on the battlefield in Afghanistan; the Americans are turning to them as a cost-effective component of maintaining military supremacy.

If the government is serious about purchasing UAVs, I tip my cap. When I served as Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, we recommended their use to defend Canada’s coastlines. Drones are also incredibly useful in saving lives on the battlefield.

Six armed drones similar to the MQ-9 Reapers that the U.S. is currently using in combat would be a good start – but only a start. I believe that Canada will have many times that number of drones in the air within a decade.

However, the suggestion that the government might be considering using drones as substitutes for fighter jets makes no sense. They can augment, but not replace. Down the line drones will undoubtedly be able to do everything that pilot-flown jets do today. But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and certainly not before our aged fleet of F-18 fighter jets have been retired.

We will still need those F-35s, unless these aircraft – still in development –  don’t live up to their hype or become not just expensive, but far too expensive. In either of these events, we will still have to purchase fighter jets from someone.

Fighter jets are the toughest, sharpest teeth in any country’s air defence. They protect our air space, and allow us to pitch in on allied missions abroad. Canada used our F-18s in Kosovo and in Libya, and in the coming decades we will deploy fighter jets again. Nobody knows when. Nobody knows where. But everybody knows that in some situations requiring quick and drastic responses, fighter jets will be needed.

So, if fighter jets of one brand or another are going to be expensive, why purchase armed drones?

Because, for a start, our defences on our East and West coasts are porous.
Canada’s Maritimes Forces – combining inputs from the Royal Canadian Navy, the RCMP, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard and our two satellites – are responsible for coastal surveillance and patrol and detecting and removing sea mines. But they have no real time picture of what is out there. They are supposed to receive 48-hour notice when ships are approaching Canada from foreign ports, but the best they can do is piece together indications of what is really happening out there.

Our primary surveillance mechanism?  The ancient Aurora aircraft, which is expensive to fly and can’t stay in the air as long as drones. Canada is an open target for any ship that can slip in – ships involved in human trafficking, ships that can come in and plant mines that may only be activated long after they have left the scene.

We need better coastal surveillance.  Drones would give us that in spades – they can tell the good guys from the bad guys from 50, 000 feet in the air. Armed drones could launch a rocket across a ship’s bow and stop it in its tracks.

Armed drones are the future of battle space. Canada was slow to acquire them on the Afghanistan mission, but when they arrived they were a godsend. They
allowed Canadian troops to see over the next hill or around the next corner, avoiding ambush.

The advantage of arming drones is obvious – it puts machinery at risk instead of soldiers. It makes perfect sense to purchase drones in conjunction with fighter jets, because they complement each other.

You don’t want your military wasting fighter jets on coastal surveillance, and fighter jets can’t be deployed every time Canadian troops get in fire fights in places like Afghanistan.

Armed drones have become controversial because of the way the U.S. government has been using them to exterminate terrorists (and unlucky civilians in proximity to terrorists) from control centres thousands of miles away.

Even the unarmed versions have aroused the ire of civil rights activists because of estimates that up to 30,000 of them could be overflying the United States by 2020, monitoring personal activities with the kind of clarity that many cameras won’t give you from a few feet away.

No question, there are moral issues connected to the use of drones. But drones are going to play a huge role in the way nations defend their interests in the coming decades.

It would be prudent for Canada to start buying them – then use them prudently.

[Colin Kenny is the former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.]